The cost of fitting in

The emphasis on strong, homogenous company cultures can erase the diversity organizations should be striving for, say these 3 Stanford experts on inclusion. Here are 5 ways to find the right balance.

The cost of fitting in
[Photo: Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock]

For some, fitting in means knowing what’s expected of them and that makes them feel comfortable at work. For others, it’s more complicated, as Stanford alum Jesse Rowe explains. Not every situation is equally welcoming to everyone, such as, when someone makes a slight or an offhand remark that conveys a derogatory, or negative attitude toward underrepresented or marginalized groups. “When I’m the only person who looks like me in the room,” explains Rowe, “and nobody else is speaking up” fitting in means that, “I just keep my head down and keep driving and mind my own business on it.” In other words, fitting in can have a cost. Instead of comfort, it can lead to a diminished sense of belonging.


As Rowe’s story demonstrates, the idea of fitting may value the comfort of the group over the feelings of any one member, particularly if that member is in the minority. Is his story unique or rare? Stanford BEAM (Bridging Education, Ambition, and Meaningful Work) has been gathering stories to share with prospective employers to help them understand this dynamic and their results say that the answer is “no.”

Here’s why: The aim of laying out the “rules of the game” is to help everyone work more efficiently and harmoniously. For example, policies, practices, and routines, such as “never start a meeting before 9 a.m.” or “always cc: the VP on meeting invitations” tend to help all. Yet in the realm of culture fit or professionalism, the rules can become problematic. They can instead erase or even snub the diversity the organization seeks to value. Thus “professionalism” can become code for “be more like the dominant group.” As a result, some, such as those who are  neurodiverse or from a disadvantaged socioeconomic or an underrepresented ethnic or racial background, will have to work harder to fit in. They must be on guard: to “carry [themselves] in a professional manner that may seem to be a step above the . . . professional environment of the office.”

Managers have different levels of awareness about these dynamics. Some may be surprised to learn that this extra burden exists while others live the experience themselves or are well attuned to the issues. Regardless of their starting point, managers can work to break down barriers so that all employees feel welcome.

When professionalism goes astray

Professionalism is a widely accepted idea, as “all … jobs have one thing in common: in order to succeed and move ahead, you need to demonstrate professionalism.” And that means conducting oneself with “excellence” and “communicating effectively and appropriately.”

Related: Inclusion and diversity start with eliminating microaggressions


Yet encouraging employees to be more professional often ends up minimizing differences and can be at odds with the promise of diversity. Unfortunately, evoking the seemingly objective concept of “professionalism” often translates to demanding that everyone act, dress, talk and live  “like-us” and, thus, maintain the status quo. As a result, coaching on acceptable behaviors can be fraught with double standards. While white women or men, especially in a time of WFH, can appear at work with messy or even shower-wet hair, Black women face criticism that their hair is unprofessional, even when they have spent hours getting it styled. Women doctors protested advice not to pose in bikinis on their personal social media accounts in order to maintain professional demeanors (the same advice was not given to men doctors  #MedBikini). Many of these double-sided comments plague the workplace, such as: “You really shouldn’t eat so much junk food” “Your name is too difficult to pronounce,” “I wouldn’t wear those hoop earrings to meet a client,” “You smell like curry,” appear to help the person with advice on how to be “professional” but instead, shame, discredit or diminish them. The list is long, hurtful, and insidious, and creates a toxic work environment.

Further, these criticisms also mask our ability to see good performance. Consider confidence, a behavior often valued in professional environments. Research by professors Maggie Neale and Peter Belmy demonstrates that we often confuse the overconfidence that comes with an upper class upbringing with competence. In other words, preferences for confidence have less to do with competence and instead align with outdated norms of social class hierarchies.

Valuing “standing out”

As systems scholar Scott Page notes, the value of teams is difference: “Differences in how people think—differences in problem representations, categorizations, knowledge bases, heuristics, technical and tacit skills, and experiences—are what enable teams to find more novel solutions, develop more creative solutions, make fewer inferential errors, and construct more accurate predictions than individuals.” Thus, “standing out” drives innovation.

Yet capturing the value of standing out is difficult when organizational culture focuses exclusively on fitting in. Why? Because working across differences means working harder.

As decades of research shows, diversity can cause, among other challenges, “greater perceived interpersonal conflict” as members of diverse teams work harder to understand each other’s perspectives; they often rate the experience of working together as less harmonious or easy. Yet, that is the value of diversity. As leadership scholar Katherine Phillips explained, members of diverse teams “might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.” This contrasts the experience of members of a homogeneous group who believe “that they will be able to easily come to a consensus.” In other words, we often confuse ease or quick understanding with success. Thus, assimilating new employees into a culture of sameness can erode the value of the diversity of employees you hired. We need to instead learn to value differences or standing out.


The delicate balance of fitting in and standing out

Like yin and yang, peanut butter and jelly, and other masterful pairings, balancing fitting in and standing out brings workability. In many cases, we have already learned to support people in fitting in, so now it’s time to build the complementary muscles of engaging with standing out. Here are five ways managers can sharpen their inclusive lenses and add to their managerial acumen.

Question professionalism: Whenever you feel the urge to correct a behavior or appearance as “nonprofessional,” pause. Ask yourself, “Is this ineffective or different?” and “Can I expand my expectations to include this?” Instead of dismissing what you see, try to understand why you are having the reaction and learn to make room for it. Remember, you may be working harder to embrace different behaviors, styles or appearances, but the outcome is making you smarter.

Value the journey: Be open to ongoingly developing and refining your standards of success instead of relying on vague definitions like “professional.” Managers who view talent as fixed or binary (either you are professional or you are not) tend to seek a few “stars” and leave other employees worried about failing. By contrast, when managers work in a growth mindset organization, they are more likely to view employees “as more innovative, collaborative, and committed to learning and growing.” In this paradigm, leaders are more like coaches as opposed to strict evaluators of fixed talent.

Bring affinity groups into the onboarding process: Demonstrate that the organization values diversity from Day 1. Ask leaders of the affinity groups how they want to be included in the new hire process, and if you are a leader of one of these groups, proactively suggest ways to make the process more inclusive. Include a list of these groups in new-hire materials. You may want to create a welcome video from the affinity groups explaining membership, allyship, and the role the groups play in the organization.This can offer people from different groups a chance to connect with each other and also signals to all employees that the organization includes and honors all types of people.

Build scaffolding: Move beyond onetime onboarding. To help new employees navigate the delicate balance of fitting in and standing out—and to ensure they do not face the penalties of others enforcing outdated ideas—create bridges between new employees and existing managers.Two-way, mutually beneficial mentorship programs, employee resource groups, and informal coffee conversations (yes, these can also happen in a virtual setting) can break down automatic responses. Have leaders share their “standing out” stories to expand employees’ views of success.


Redesign internships: Internships can be a good way to “try out” new talent, and, as management scholar Adina Sterling found in her research, they can play an important role in increasing workplace inclusion and diversity. By studying new hire offers of people from underrepresented groups, Sterling discovered that former interns faced less bias when they returned as full-time employees than those who had no prior experience in the workplace. But it doesn’t stop with the offer letter. Sterling’s research also shows that it is especially important that interns and new hires from underrepresented groups get paired with skilled managers who will connect them throughout the organization, assign thoughtful and challenging project lists, and offer the support they need to succeed.

As workplaces become more diverse, we need strategies to ensure everyone is both seen as their full selves and has the tools to succeed. These five ideas can help organizations harness the value of our workforce, so that everyone can thrive while fitting in and standing out.

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie is the lead strategist for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-founder of the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab.  

Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.  

Lourdes V. Andrade is the Director of Diversity and Inclusion in the Stanford School of Engineering.